The changing notions of materialism and status in an increasingly dematerialised world

Isabella Hübscher

By Isabella Hübscher20 janvier 2022

Our world is becoming more and more digital. This does not only affect our notions and representations of self, but it has also changed the nature of possessions.

The dematerialisation of our digital age does not mean the end of materiality (Shutterstock)

A huge number of once-materialised objects have now dematerialised. This phenomenon also affects luxury goods, by influencing luxury values such as scarcity, uniqueness and permanence. But can we really claim materialism is declining? Russell Belk examines this phenomenon in his analysis in the Research Handbook on Luxury Branding edited by Felicitas Morhart, Keith Wilcox and Sandos Czellar.

Digitisation and dematerialisation of consumption are nowadays two phenomena linked to the so-called sharing economy. Simply put, when we share things, we do not need to own them, thus, fewer things are needed. The internet and digital devices have facilitated sharing with strangers as well as commercial sharing. These notions all suggest that the importance of ownership is declining, and it is possible that the generations growing up digitally may be less enthralled with owning goods ranging from clothes, to vehicles and homes. Additionally, renting or leasing expensive, high-status items may be a way to leverage individuals’ lifestyles by renting rather than purchasing what would otherwise be unaffordable to some luxury goods consumers.

Dematerialisation does not mean non-material

Nevertheless, even though dematerialisation is observed, it is hardly the case that most consumer goods have become non-material. Most individuals’ food, furnishings, vehicles and clothes are still individually owned, and the proliferation of the digital has also led to a proliferation of new digital devices, in order to acquire or access such content. Furthermore, obsolescence and renewal of these devices is very fast. This is especially true as all social classes aspire to this technology, with the most economically disadvantaged consumers tending to sacrifice essential goods in order to gain access to it.

Cultural and temporal differences

Nowadays, status is often marked by what we know rather than what we own, once again stressing the rising concept of dematerialisation. Even though today’s views often emphasise the fact that class comparisons and conflicts have been replaced by identity politics and divisions based on race, gender and lifestyle, class comparisons remain present in our society. Scholars give the example of a contemporary American context, showing that for the aspirational classes this includes knowledge and practices of all that is organic, sustainable and local among others.

Status is often marked by the amount of knowledge we have, as well as education, rather than by what we have. Here the abbey library of St. Gallen (Stiftsbezirk St. Gallen)

There are also further cultural differences regarding the role of luxury as standing out versus fitting in. Indeed, although luxury consumption is commonly thought of as a means of standing out from others, in some cultures, it can be more a matter of fitting in. Both goals relate to processes of social comparison, the difference of which lies in the fact of either matching their peers or exceeding them.

Are we living in a post-material age?

Scholars claim that with the achievement of societal affluence in which most consumers’ basic needs and desires are satisfied, we enter a post-material age in which having attained our lower order needs we turn to higher order ones such as self-actualization. However, evidence suggests that instead of decreasing, the incidence of materialism in the world is increasing and spreading. It seems that when status is more in flux, individuals are more inclined to demonstrate their status through visible materialistic consumption. Materialism is encouraged by luxury purchases which improve positive moods and increase reports of feelings of well-being. Another global force that affects attitude towards materialism and concern with status is conspicuous consumption, due mainly to the mechanism of envy as a matter of social comparison.

In a post-material era, after satisfying our so-called everyday needs, we turn to higher needs such as self-fulfilment. Here, the Ming Shan Digital Experience developed by the EPFL Ecal Lab, an immersive installation capable of promoting meditation (Daniela Tonatiuh)

Cultural capital as form of dematerialisation

Further, scholars suggest that class is reproduced through non-material cultural capital. Cultural capital consists of knowledge and tastes that are generally acquired and passed along through habitus gained from parents, friends or education. It might include how we talk, dress or even our manners and political views. But with the internet, at least a portion of such knowledge can be gained in a few clicks. Indeed, in the digital age, in addition to these principal types of capital, one must add information capital. This entails having access to the internet and devices and knowing how to successfully make use of them to gain information. At the same time, it is important to underline that there is a growing awareness of the downsides and dangers of the digital age. Fear of Missing Out causes many digital devices and applications to shift from luxuries to necessities to addictions.

While it seems that materialism and status-seeking may disappear in digital and sharing age of dematerialization, this chapter shows that it is far from being the reality. Humans adapt and will continue to adapt to our material and non-material circumstances, even though ways to express or seek status may differ.

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